Honour met no other cars on the narrow mountain road, and the few isolated houses she passed looked deserted. Had she gone too far, or not far enough? She should have asked for the exact distance to the turn off. There were no signposts, no addresses. She drove up the mount, across a seemingly uninhabited ridge, and down the other side. Had she misunderstood or been misled? “On the right, half way up,” Claudia had said. “The house is set back.” On the third try, Honour edged along, scanning both sides; finally a rutted track, skirting a thicket of evergreens.
Into the deep dark woods, she thought; here goes.
The rented Alfa bumped and slid along the rough path. Two hundred metres, and she was through the trees, on asphalt. And there was a house plucked from a storybook, a small and pretty Tyrolian chalet. The right house: Villa della Civetta, an owl carved into the wooden lintel over the front door. Honour pressed the doorbell and waited; she knocked and waited. Patience, the woman was old. Another, harder knock. The sound of a deadbolt sliding, a lock turning. The thick wooden door creaked open – a quarter of the way.
An old woman, the old woman surely, in a green tweed skirt and black cardigan set.
Honour gave her name. No response. “You are Claudia Perini?”
“What do you want?” The old woman’s face was somber, unwelcoming.
“I am sorry I am a bit late,” Honour said. “I missed the turn.” No response. “We have an appointment.” No response. “Don’t you remember?” She had come too late. The woman was past it. “I phoned you … from Canada. You said – come … Honour … Bailey?”
Only her eyes moved, inspecting Honour from head to toe. Another thirty seconds and she was getting back in the car. Or grabbing those narrow shoulders and giving Claudia a good shake. Honour laid her hand on the latch to her purse. “Would you like to check my passport?”
Claudia opened the door a fraction wider. “You are not the first to come looking for me.”
Was that an invitation to step in? Honour took it. “Permesso,” she said emphatically, as she crossed the threshold. With your permission.
Claudia bobbed her head. “I have been waiting. I wondered if the sleet would deter you.”
“I am not easily deterred,” Honour said. (At least, not when it comes to you.) “It’s quite a road up. All those switchbacks. But neither ice nor mud can stop me.” Honour tried a smile as she handed Claudia her damp trench coat.
“Vedremo, we’ll see,” Claudia said aloud, but seemingly to herself. Then she refocused on Honour. “Wipe your feet. Brava.” And she led Honour down a dim corridor, past a spiral staircase and into a small bright room. There was a wall of books and French doors to a balcony and even from across the room, a spectacular view. Three armchairs, a dark oak sideboard topped with framed photos, a round table, and two chairs. “Sit.” Claudia pointed at one of the chairs. “We’ll have tea.”
Honour did as she was told, resisting the impulse to check out the books and examine the photos while Claudia was out of the room. She was pleased with herself, with her persistence and poise. Claudia was the one who seemed uneasy, confused. Claudia’s age had spurred Honour to make the trip: she had to see Claudia before she died. She had expected her to be frail, but of body, not mind.
“Ma cosa si puo fare,” Claudia said on re-entering, tray firmly in hand. What can be done? In Italian the phrase was empty, the equivalent of a shrug. She took the seat across the small table from Honour. Her gnarled, age-spotted hands were steady on the handle of the teapot as she poured and on the silver tongs as she twice lifted a slice of lemon from a dish and lowered it into each of their china cups. Claudia’s voice too was not hoarse or shaky, but lilting with only a hint of age. Her accent in English was surprisingly muted.
“You can speak in Italian,” Honour said. “I’m fluent. You might be more comfortable.”
Claudia shook her head. “Not today. I like having to make the extra effort.”
“But it would be more natural, closer to your experience, in your native tongue.” Truer, Honour thought.
“Shall we compare fluencies?” Claudia shook her head again. “I doubt you could follow the subtleties.”
Honour reached into her leather tote and pulled out the miniature recorder. “This helps. I can replay the tape.” She pressed the On button to her miniature recorder and recited the time, date, place, and their names.
“You sound like a policeman about to interrogate a suspect,” Claudia said.
Honour felt her cheeks flush. “Whatever this interview turns into, an academic article or a book, I need to quote you accurately and then footnote.”
Claudia watched her take a sip of the burning hot tea. “Turn it off.”
Claudia pointed. “Chiudi.”
“Fine, for now,” Honour said. Her eye was doing a double-twitch. She must be jetlagged. She should have waited at least another day.
“I will sing my song but will you hear it?” Claudia said.
“For sure, if I tape it, I can really listen.”
Clearly, she was not going to answer the list of questions Honour had spent days composing. “I may talk. I may tell you my story, but in my own way,” Claudia said.
“You may talk?” Honour said. “I flew here from Canada.”
“You are not the first to come looking for me.”
“So you said.”
“You see for many years, decades, after I left prison, I was safe up here, forgotten. My name and face erased from public attention and record.”
“You must have had help,” said Honour. “You were allowed to disappear.”
“I was not in hiding. A few supporters of the cause and a handful of old friends knew where I was. It was they who, presuming to protect me, fueled the rumours that I had joined a convent to spend my days in prayer and contemplation. In a sense this was true. My life in this town has been austere and secluded. These mountains are my cloister. They shut out the chaos and the squalour of the cities below.”
So that was why Claudia had insisted on speaking in English. She must have prepared what she was going to say, practiced.
“But understand, I am not penitent.” Claudia squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. Forget the recorder, Honour should have brought a video camera. “If you have come expecting me to cry and confess, you shall be disappointed. I have never sought absolution. As the song says, I regret nothing. The vows I made were not to God but to myself.” Claudia paused, lifted her cup in a semi-salute. “The media, my country, presumed me dead, or as good as dead. But no longer.
“Even up here, we are caught like flies in a web of interconnection.” Claudia leaned forward, her eyes on Honour. “Refusing a computer or the internet does not save you. We are as plugged in as the citizens of Milan or London or that distant Canadian city you said you are from.”
“Which is why I could find you,” said Honour.
“Exactly. On the other hand, we now see what we could not see before. Empires, ideologies crumbling. Before our eyes. And inevitably, war.”
“You mean the one in the former Yugoslavia, don’t you?”
“Night after night on the television set, I couldn’t avoid those images: snipers, bombs, fires, ruins, and columns of refugees. The stories of slaughters and mass graves. It was happening all over again, neighbour against neighbour, but this time the cameras were there, recording. This time no ethnic group, no leaders could deny the events, erase the pictures.”
“Were you pleased?” said Honour.
“By the suffering? By the capacity of humans to do evil? Never … Never.” Another sip of tea and Claudia dabbed at her mouth with her white embroidered napkin.
“I mean, did you feel a moment of justification?”
Claudia shook her head, her eyes closing in emphasis. “I wasn’t surprised. And though I had trained myself to hope for nothing, I felt a flutter of expectation. Would the silence finally be broken? The truth finally told? Because history was repeating itself.”
“And your role remembered?”
Again, Claudia closed her eyes and shook her head. “The last thing on my mind. I was pleased when articles and then books – not enough of them – began to trickle out. But I did not foresee that my act would also be reconsidered. I could not believe it, last year on the fiftieth anniversary of that day, a friend sent me a magazine with a few lines, a quick summary, but also a picture from the trial and a ridiculous headline: The Beautiful Assassin.” Claudia let out a disdainful snort. “Sensationalist rags. Another dubbed me the Lady Terrorist. They began to speculate: was I alive? They must have searched for a certificate of death.”
Her head shakes had become punctuation. “I began receiving cards, letters, curses and blessings. Anonymous threats but also pleas to tell my story. The telephone calls were worse. I could throw out the mail without reading it.”
“You opened mine.”
“Not the first letter or the second, but I admire tenacity. And your missive came from a Department of History of a Canadian university.”
“That convinced you? My being a historian?”
“Patience, Dottoressa. We will speak of La Storia, the history that has been forgotten and denied.” Claudia was looking over at the sideboard as she spoke. “But I was talking of the intrusive phone calls that shattered the blessed quiet of my home. As you know, my number was and is unlisted. It made no difference. I had it changed twice. If I’d been younger, I would have done without the wretched instrument. Eventually, a friend managed to register it to his business in Vicenza. Nevertheless, strangers started arriving in town, hunting me down. Admirers, enemies: who knew which was which? I had to give up my mid-morning cappuccino and brioche at the Caffé Verdi, one of my few pleasures. I had to leave my comfortable apartment for this chalet.”
“You have an amazing view, up and down the valley.”
“We are not in a valley. This is the altopiano of Asiago. A natural citadel.”
“A plateau, of course. I meant to say that.” Honour was starting to nod yes as often as the old woman was shaking her head in a no.
“I accepted the offer of this house, not for the view but the position. You said it yourself, ‘hard to find.’ But that advantage has its other side. It is too far to walk to town for groceries. I take taxis, but they limit your freedom. Asiago? I may have to buy a car, of all things. Though perhaps it will encourage me to go out, perhaps farther afield. Sometimes I don’t see anyone from one day to the next. In town, I only had to look out my window to see a bit of life. Here I have the trees and meadows, certainly, but they reinforce my solitude. Besides, this winter I was frequently snowed in. Once it was four days before the plough came, two for the phone, more for the electricity.”
“The family in the villa down the road – you must have seen it – red shutters – they are good people. They skied over daily to check on me. Sometimes, all they had to do was yell up, and I would lean out the window to show myself. Other times, and not just when I am ill, they bring me the supplies from town.” Claudia was still focused on the sideboard or the wall behind it. Another wave of exhaustion swept over Honour. She shifted in her seat, trying to unkink her back. Claudia turned her head and gave Honour a long look. “More tea?” Claudia said with a wintry smile. She refilled both their cups. Her words kept coming.
“I was grateful enough to be up here when the television people arrived with their cameras and microphones. They questioned whomever they could find: the butcher, the dentist, Don Geraldo at the cathedral. Even the young ones in the fast food place – as if adolescents notice anything past the end of their noses. The reporters confronted women coming out of the bakeries. ‘Do you know her? Can you direct us?’ La Perini, they called me, or La Fascista. ‘How do you feel, a woman like her living among you?’
“I happened to be in town at the latteria when one of the teams swept in. The clerk, the other customers, none of them gave me away. They answered the questions by shaking their heads, shrugging, feigning ignorance. When the woman brandishing the large fuzzy recording wand turned to me, I was as calm as the others. ‘I’ve heard of her, of course,’ I said. ‘But not that she lives here.’
“‘Impossible,’ the creature said. I had seen her often enough on the television. Adriana Parotta. But of course, the name won’t mean anything to you. Still, I suspect you have her type on your television too. She speaks in an urgent tone, as if she were bringing the truth and nothing but to the audience. But off screen, she is diminished, smaller and more false, hair too blond and too long. Face as painted as a doll. She’s a host of a true crime show. Can you imagine? True crime. As if I were a run-of-the-mill murderer.
“I thank the Lord for my fellow citizens. They would not betray me. They’re strong, shaped by the long winters, the merciless cold.”
“I get that,” said Honour eagerly. “I come from a city with long, cold winters myself. An isolated Northern place. Edmontonians have a strong sense of community. We support one another. It’s survival.” She felt re-energized by her own words. She was no crème puff. You can’t eat me. “We have to balance on the edge of the wild,” said Honour.
Claudia wasn’t listening. “Do you know the history of this plateau? The seven communes that made up an independent Republic?” she said.
Honour plowed on. “We are as tough as anyone. Our kids – our children, even in elementary school, they are sent out to play until minus twenty-five centigrade. Imagine. No shirking, no matter how cold, or how much snow, we go out, we drive.”
Claudia made a moue of indifference. “The second earliest democracy happened here, on the altopiano. And it lasted six hundred years.”
“I know that. The mountains helped repel any invading armies. And the Communes’ alliance with the Serenissima protected them, until Napoleon. I told you Venetian history is my area,” said Honour.
“Brava. And you, an American.”
“The majority of Italians have no idea.”
“I did my PhD thesis on the occupation of Venezia by the French and the siege by the Austrians,” said Honour. “I think I mentioned that in one of my letters.”
“Odd choice. For a millennium, the Lion of St. Mark is triumphant, but you focus on the years of humiliation and oppression.”
“The area was relatively untilled.”
“For good reason. Listen, I have a point. With such a tradition of freedom, the people up here never developed the cravenness so common down below.
“Craven is a strong word,” said Honour. “Are the citizens of Milan or Rome really any worse than those who happen to live in a smallish town on a plateau?”
“Listen.” Claudia pronounced the word as if she were giving an order. “The people up here protect their own. And that includes me. These paparazzi bothered everyone asking where to find me. The owner of my pharmacy pointed out another old woman, an outsider visiting from Milan. There she goes, he said. The poor lady had trouble convincing them she wasn’t me. They filmed her walking down the street. Put the snippet on a news show. If they had examined the picture taken 50 years ago when I was first arrested, the one that was in all the papers, they would never have mistaken that dumpy woman for me. Dottore Leonardo thought it a good joke, but I made him call the network. They ran a retraction a couple of days later. And I told everyone that such tricks were unacceptable. It could have led to the lady being bothered, or – worse – hurt. There are still many who would do me harm simply because of what I symbolize.”
Claudia’s face settled into a glum expression and her eyes lost their focus.
“Why break your silence now, after all these years?” said Honour.
Claudia paused before answering. “Certainly, the fiftieth anniversary spurred me to reflect and record. I do not want to be stereotyped, reduced to the so-called sound bite. I have truths to impart, particularly now, with this new war raging. I must leave a full account.”
So La Perini did want to be remembered, despite her protestations. “I appeared at the right time,” Honour said.
“Don’t be presumptuous. I am still taking your measure.”
“You have some test questions, Signorina Perini? You said you would tell me why you let me come.”
“A friend advised me that someone like you, a foreigner and an academic, would be more credible than an Italian journalist. The friend himself is a much-respected writer. His books are studied in schools throughout the country. Oh, we have our differences, politically and otherwise. I find his prose style too quiet, faux naïf. Still, I approached him … He refused.”
Honour picked up a biscotto. She took a bite and a large, hard chunk landed on her tongue. A second of panic, should she spit it out? She couldn’t swallow it. She’d choke. She reached for her cup and drained the last dregs. She held the tea in her mouth. Did she look odd, her lips pressed together? But Claudia was looking past her and still talking.
“I allowed two previous writers to visit. The first was a young man from Rome, who said he was working on a thesis. He turned out to be a rabid member of the Northern League with a plan to use me for propaganda. The other was a woman from across the border, a daughter of I Rimasti, those who remained. She was a flatterer, brought flowers and pastries, but she didn’t want to listen. She wanted to buy the rights to the Gesture as she called it. Turn me into a character in a theatrical play. When I told her no, she had the gall to say she was only being polite. I was a historical figure, and she could present me without my permission, if she cared to.”
The tea and some vigorous chewing worked. Honour swallowed and said, “It upset you? That you could lose control?”
“Wouldn’t it you, Dottoressa? If someone took your story and used it for their own purposes? Thanks to God, the woman seems to have changed her mind. There has been no such play. But the danger increases each year. My life could be turned into one of Mediaset’s miniseries: melodramatic and sentimental. The Lady and the Gun. Wait for it. Or the RAI might choose it for an episode of The Way it Was, distorting all the facts. And let us not forget the dreaded Parotta woman and her yellow journalism.”
“There is no danger of my turning your story into a trivial tale.”
“I also don’t want my life to be reduced to the facts or to four pages in an academic journal that no one will ever read.”
“You want a book,” Honour said. “And vetting rights?”
“Of course, I will not have my ideals betrayed. But first I must vet you before I worry about vetting what you write. Are you truly what your name promises? Can I trust you with my life? For that is what I would be gifting you.”
Honour’s heart began to beat faster, louder: careful now. She concentrated on keeping her voice calm. “And I would be giving you my expertise, my talent. But I am not a ghost writer.”
“Ghost?” Claudia made a face.
“I won’t jump through hoops to prove myself. And I won’t be a mouthpiece.”
“Of course not,” said Claudia. “Listen, it will soon be dark. Come back tomorrow. We will converse. No hoops.”
Honour sensed that for the first time since she had knocked on the door, Claudia was softening, relaxing. Worn out?
“You will tell me your life,” Claudia said.
As if, Honour thought.
“And I mine. Then, we shall see.”
Honour hesitated. She was in no mood to return and continue. Still, she nodded. She had waited all her life to face this woman.
“Claudia” is an excerpt from The Bone-Collector’s Wife, a work in progress. “Claudia” also appears in People, Places, Passages: An Anthology of Canadian Writing (Longbridge 2018).
Caterina Edwards’ The Sicilian Wife was a National Post Best Book of 2015. Her nonfiction book, Finding Rosa, as well as a collection of stories and several personal essays have won major awards, while another novel, a play, and two novellas also received praise and critical attention. She often writes about the collision of multiple selves and cultures, memory and history. In 2016, Caterina was inducted into the City of Edmonton’s Cultural Wall of Fame.